LightSquared recently received conditional Federal Communications Commission approval to install its network, with restrictions related to keeping signals within their assigned frequencies in the L band. The company also is required to test existing GPS devices to determine what type of interference its transmitters might cause. LightSquared formed a working group in February with the U.S. Global Positioning System Industry Council to study the interference issues and has to report to the FCC regularly about its progress. A final report is due in June.

Earlier this year, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration told the FCC that federal agencies are worried about LightSquared's proposed LTE network interfering with GPS satellites and other emergency communications. In the letter, NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling said that a fully terrestrial network would require more base stations than a terrestrial/satellite combination network, thereby increasing the likelihood of interference. Indeed, LightSquared’s network will consist of 40,000 broadband transmission towers across the U.S.

Now a group of manufacturers whose operations rely on the accuracy of GPS have joined forces to form a group called SaveOurGPS.org, which is in opposition to LightSquared’s LTE network. In addition to GPS companies Garmin and Trimble, the group includes: the Aeronautical Repair Stations Association, Air Transport Association, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, American Rental Association, Associated Equipment Distributors, Association of Equipment Manufacturers, Case New Holland, Caterpillar Inc., Edison Electric Institute, Esri, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, Deere & Co., National Association of Manufacturers, and OmniSTAR.

Trimble vice president and general counsel Jim Kirkland testified before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science of the House Appropriations Committee last Friday on the issue. Kirkland said that the FCC's move to approve LightSquared's waiver to operate the network could cause "consequences of disruption" to GPS service that will be "far reaching, likely to affect large portions of the population and the federal government."

Kirkland added that, "Initial technical analysis has shown that the distant, low-powered GPS signals would receive substantial interference from high-powered, close-proximity transmissions from a network of ground stations. The consequences of disruption to the GPS signals are far reaching, likely to affect large portions of the population and the federal government. Therefore, it is imperative that the new system not be deployed unless it can be conclusively guaranteed that the GPS users are fully protected from radio interference."

He added that LightSquared's proposal to build 40,000 terrestrial base stations operating at 1 billion times the power levels of GPS signals as received on earth "represents a tectonic change in the use of this band."

But the FCC also is under pressure to find more spectrum to feed the explosive demand of mobile broadband services, and it wants to see more broadband deployed. LightSquared has a tight rollout deadline. As a condition of its waiver, the operator must cover 100 million people by the end of 2012, 145 million people by the end of 2013 and at least 260 million people by the end of 2015. (Harbinger, the private-equity firm that owns LightSquared, has set these timetables and the FCC has approved them). Obviously the company can get an FCC waiver, but time is money for this highly leveraged endeavor. LightSquared has aspirations of being a wholesale provider and claims to have signed numerous deals so far—but it hasn’t named any names.

Moreover, with LightSquared’s operations, the FCC moves toward fulfilling some big policy goals, such as covering rural areas. A section of the FCC’s LightSquared waiver spells out how the operator’s service will make terrestrial mobile wireless broadband available to a wider variety of users and that the public safety and homeland security communities will benefit from having a broadband service when they are operating in, or transitioning between, urban, suburban or rural areas.

GPS, of course, is a vital tool for all sorts of industries and government functions. I’m not sure why the FCC granted a waiver before the interference issues could be put to rest. But their doing so highlights how aggressive the commission is working to further its policy goals — goals that could be hijacked if the interference issue isn’t resolved quickly or to the satisfaction of those that rely on GPS.